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The World's Oldest Republic : SAN MARINO

December 20, 1987|RODERICK MANN | Mann is a Times Calendar columnist.

SAN MARINO — After an hour's fast drive along the superhighway southeast from Bologna, Italy, just past coastal Rimini, the taxi turned right and began the long, snaking climb up Mt. Titano.

"There," the driver said proudly. "There it is." And 2,300 feet above us, like some mythical kingdom in a child's storybook, loomed the turrets and battlements of the world's oldest republic, San Marino.

This was to be a gala occasion in the life of this mountaintop city-state, population 23,000. Each April and October, in an elaborate ceremony dating to 1244, the nation elects two new Captains Regent to head the government, their tenure lasting a mere six months because the Sammarinese, as the citizens are called, believe that liberty demands that no leader should rule alone, or for a long period.

Liberty and democracy are words heard often here, and the Sammarinese are proud of the sign at their border crossing, "Welcome to the Ancient Land of Liberty."

Eighty percent of the population turns out on election day, and the government even helps pay the expenses for Sammarinese living abroad to fly home to vote (there are 7,000 just in the United States).

This 23 1/2-square-mile country, an oasis of Ruritanian charm encircled by Italy, has its own laws, its own taxes and its own traditions, many of them going back 1,700 years. Walk its cobbled streets or climb to view the Romagna plains of Italy from its towering battlements and you really feel like you've stepped back into the past.

But though this country, about one-third the size of Santa Catalina Island, seems like something out of the Middle Ages, its citizens are not. Their smiles soon make it clear that they know they are on to a good thing--free health care for all, virtually no crime, taxes much lower than Italy's and the highest pensions in the world.

Which is good enough reason to smile.

"It really is a sort of paradise," said Baron Enrico di Portanova, San Marino's consul general in Washington, who flew here in his private jet to attend the ceremonies. "And these people's belief in participatory democracy is so strong that even the smallest issues are debated. Everyone has his say. And if the people don't approve of some venture, it can't happen."

Now the country's economy may get an added boost. It rests primarily on tourism, evidenced by the gift shops lining the streets and its collectible postage stamps. Talks are going on with Italy about opening a casino here.

It has been tried before, with disastrous results. In 1949, San Marino opened a highly profitable casino. For economic and political reasons, Italy ordered it closed. The tiny republic refused. Whereupon the Italians rushed in the carabinieri and blockaded the place.

"Customs officers held people up for days; they allowed one car an hour through," Di Portanova said. "Starved of tourists, San Marino had to capitulate."

But with Rome showing itself more accommodating these days, talks are once again taking place, although opinion in San Marino seems divided.

"Some fear it will lower the tone of the place and bring in shady elements," Di Portanova said. "But clearly it would be a great boon to the economy."

Plans are also being drawn for some luxury hotels and golf courses. At the moment the best hotel is the Grand, far from luxurious but not expensive, either. A double room with a view--and what a view, right across the plains to the misty Apennines in the distance--costs just 67,000 lira (about $57 U.S.). Full board is a mere 10,000 more lira per person.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people have their eyes on this place. But if you fancy the idea of moving here, and wonder if you'll be killed in the rush, try winning the Lottery first. Your chances are about the same.

One of the reasons San Marino isn't overcrowded is that this country makes it almost impossible for a foreigner to become a citizen, although Abraham Lincoln was made an honorary one. Even if you are left a house here by a Sammarinese, you must obtain permission from the government's Council of Twelve before claiming it. Democracy, it seems, stops just short of turning the place into a giant parking lot.

"They are very careful here," Di Portanova said. "They enjoy a higher per capita income and standard of living than Italy does." And people do seem to live well. The San Marino taxi that brought us from Bologna was an immaculate 1986 Mercedes.

The Sammarinese are anxious to dispel any notion that they are a harmless anachronism in a world of power politics. As Gabrielle Gatti, secretary of Foreign Affairs, said, San Marino enjoys observer status at the United Nations, belongs to most international organizations and is infinitely more politically sophisticated than other small nations such as Liechtenstein and Andorra.

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